Why I Am Writing About Raspberry Pi

I’m writing about the Raspberry Pi for the same reason I write about anything: because I think it is pretty amazing. When I was a kid, I loved programming on our Amstrad 6128. Programming is the best way to learn how computers work, and with computers completely infiltrating our daily lives, it is now more important than ever that kids understand them.

However, despite being unbelievably powerful compared to my humble Amstrad and despite all the advancements in programming languages that have occurred over the years, modern computers are almost impossible for kids to learn to code on. This is really down to two factors.

The first is that, often, the computer isn’t exclusively theirs. To learn how something works you need to be able to pull it apart, and often, you might not know how to put it back exactly as it was, not something you want to be doing on a computer that has someone elses work on it. At £20 a pop plus a few secondhand bits and pieces, the pi is affordable for most families in the UK to buy their kids.

The second factor that limits learning on computers is the evilness of the manufacturers and software vendors, Apple and Microsoft in particular. Apple are so determined to lock you into the Apple market that writing low level programs for their devices is pretty much impossible without voiding your warranty and rooting the device. And as for Microsoft, words cannot begin to capture the seething black pit of sulphurous hatred I have for them, their business practices and their software. And this is before we get into the nightmare of hardware manufacturers who refuse to release their products’ specs and the problem that, thanks to moronic patent laws, doing even ridiculously trivial things on a computer can require the buying of a licence. Not that the Raspberry Pi is perfect in these last two respects (for example, its graphics chip hasn’t had its specs released and its hardware video encoding requires a licence), but it is certainly better than anything else about at the moment and is a big step in the right direction.

Because of this, I am writing a programming book aimed at kids, which is full of cool things for them do with their pi. As we get closer to the release of the book, I imagine the blog will be more focused on promoting the book, but for now it is just about sharing what I know about getting started with the Raspberry Pi.

What is a Raspberry Pi Anyway?

The Raspberry Pi is £15 computer that is the size of a credit card (despite it being made in Britain by a British company, the pi is actually priced in dollars, 25 of them to be precise, so the £ price might vary depending on exchange rates etc.) Though it is multipurpose and can be used for pretty much anything you can imagine, it is mainly targeted at children, to allow them to have a real computer that they can learn on.

Depending on your computer experience, the word computer might mean many different things to you, so telling you that the Raspberry Pi is one might not help a great deal. It also might not help if I tell you that the pi is fairly general purpose computer, so lets look at some specifics.

To a lot of people computer means a desktop computer that is used for surfing the web, editing spreadsheets etc., and a pi can definitely be used in this way with the addition of a keyboard, mouse and monitor.

They can also be used as servers. Servers are computers that other computers connect to and, as result, don’t need keyboards and monitors of their own. One common use of a pi is as a file server (also known as a NAS box). In this configuration, the pi is used as a central location to store files (such as backups, your music library, etc.) on your home network. These files can then be shared (assuming you have allowed it) with all the other computers (including mobile phones etc.) in your home and, if you wish, on the internet.

However, this is just the beginning. Computers crop up everywhere, from controlling your digital TV to the satellites in sky. And, thanks to its combination of USB ports and GPIO connector there are very few things that the pi can’t be programmed to control (including robots!)

So if you son/daughter/niece/nephew is in need of first computer, if you have a computer project round the home or office, if you are planning some cutting edge piece of robotics or if you just want to learn more about computers, the Raspberry Pi is an ideal choice. It is cheap, small and low power, has a fantastic community and is made by a charitable organisation, the Raspberry Pi Foundation, that is dedicated to empowering computer users by making computers fun and accessible. What more do you want? Go buy one now!

Raspberry Pi Cardboard Case

So, my Raspberry Pi came in the mail a little while ago (for those of you who don’t know, The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and keyboard, and which costs between £15 and £25. It can do most of things you’d expect of a computer, but is mainly being targeted towards the educational environment, and perhaps most importantly, I’m currently writing a book about programming games on it for kids.) As this was one of the early ones, it came without a case. So my first task was to find it one (a good resource for cases is the Raspberry Pi Wiki). After a bit of googling, I found my pi’s ideal home in the Pibow.

Pibow Case

However, as they hadn’t actually started manufacturing them yet, I still needed something for the interim. A fairly obvious candidate for temporary protection lay in the box it came in; after all, it had been sturdy enough to survive Royal Mail, so a case made out of it should stand up well to life on my desk.

A few clicks later and I had myself a template (nb if you are going to print and use the template, make sure you have your pdf viewer set to print the page the actual size and not to do any scaling, else the Pi won’t fit!), and after about ten minutes of knife work, I had myself a case 🙂

All that remained was to fit the Pi inside, a fairly simple task,

And give it a quick test.

I’m not sure there is that much to say about the case itself. It works. It doesn’t require any glue, so it is easy to get the pi in and out of. I probably should take a hole punch to it to create some ventilation, but I haven’t had any problems with it overheating as yet, so why bother? One thing I will do at some point is decorate the poor thing, as it does look a tad dull. Now, where did I put those acrylic paints…